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Starter Fuel

At a NASCAR event in February at Daytona International Speedway, a yellow Chevy Silverado pace car emblazoned with the words "corn fed" zipped around the track. Running on a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline, the truck is one of about 400,000 "E85," or "FlexFuel," vehicles that General Motors will produce this year as part of its "Live Green, Go Yellow" initiative highlighting the high-octane, cleaner-burning fuel.

The presence of ethanol-fueled vehicles at a NASCAR race is just one of the more visible indicators of how the corn-based fuel, which debuted as a gasoline extender during the gas shortages of the 1970s, is moving front and center on Florida's economic stage as the nation attempts to trim its consumption of foreign oil. Another: Gov. Jeb Bush's 2006 legislative proposals, which include funding for research and demonstration projects and tax incentives associated with alternative fuels, including ethanol.

But while awareness of ethanol may be growing in Florida, there's hardly any of the stuff itself here yet. Most cars sold in Florida aren't set up to burn the E85 blend. There are only two E85 pumping stations in Florida -- one at Hurlburt Field near Fort Walton Beach and the other at Kennedy Space Center -- and both are closed to the public. The closest E85 public retailer is at the Dixie Road Shoppette in Fort Benning, Ga.

The story's the same for the weaker ethanol mixture that most cars can use -- a 10% blend of ethanol known as E10. There are no publicly operated E10 pumps in Florida.

For both economic and logistical reasons, ethanol must be manufactured near where it's used in order for it to be viable. It can't be piped in like petroleum products because of its tendency to absorb water. Instead, it must be shipped in by rail or truck and "splash-blended," or mixed, at terminal stations, as it is loaded into tanker trucks. With the nearest ethanol manufacturing facilities in Kentucky, ethanol is simply too expensive an option for Florida gas retailers.

How soon ethanol is manufactured in Florida involves the fortunes of Bradley Krohn, a former scientist with Missouri-based Monsanto Co. who worked on creating hybrid types of corn that produce greater yields of ethanol. In 2004, Krohn and a fellow Monsanto veteran named Mike Kinley launched Tampa-based U.S. EnviroFuels LLC. The company has just received a state construction permit for an $80-million ethanol-production plant at the Port of Tampa. It is planning another facility at Port Manatee near Bradenton. Krohn has already negotiated a feedstock contract -- the price it will pay for corn -- and completed its marketing agreements. It is now lining up financing.


CORN FED: E85 vehicles are identified by a sticker inside the gas door. For a list of Flexible Fuel Vehicles, go to ethanol.org/e85.html

"We're well-positioned to supply the entire Florida market because we are a flexible transportation facility," says Krohn. "We can move ethanol to the Port of Tampa, the Port of Jacksonville and Port Everglades by ocean vessel, truck or rail." Groups in North Carolina and Georgia are working on ethanol manufacturing facilities as well, but Krohn and his partners are alone in working on creating a supply of ethanol in Florida.

Krohn's position at the cutting edge of ethanol production may well make him a business success story in coming years. But even if he can break ground on his two plants this summer, it will likely be at least a year later before he's making any E10 ethanol for sale in Florida.

And even if U.S. EnviroFuels reaches its targeted production of 40 million gallons of E10 by the fall of 2007, all that ethanol would only cut gas consumption in the state less than one-half of 1% at most.

Krohn's broadest impact in the short term may be on Florida's agricultural sector. In a move that holds enormous potential for Florida growers, he's looking beyond corn to crops that could be grown locally on a year-round basis for ethanol production. Last fall, Krohn teamed up with an Ohio doctor, Anthony Senagore, who runs an ethanol distillery in Bartow, to experiment with turning sweet sorghum, sweet potatoes and citrus waste into ethanol.

Calling themselves the Tampa Bay Ethanol Consortium, Krohn, Senagore and two co-applicants landed a $1.92-million grant from the USDA and Department of Energy's Biomass Research and Development Initiative to design and construct a 2-million-gallon-per-year flex feed ethanol pilot plant. "We're very confident about the data we will prove within the state of Florida because the feedstocks are all high-quality" and require very little manipulation before going into fermentation, says Senagore.

Turning to citrus

USDA researcher Wilbur Widmer says it's becoming more economical to convert other crops -- including the 5 million tons of citrus waste produced each year in Florida -- into ethanol. A research chemist at the USDA Citrus and Subtropical Products Laboratory in Winter Haven, Widmer has been carrying on the work of Karel Groh-mann, a now-retired scientist, who made strides in converting citrus peel to ethanol fuel using a special enzyme cocktail.

Grohmann's lab work, carried out a decade ago when gas prices were cheap and enzyme prices were steep, sat dormant until economic factors realigned favorably. Gas prices have soared, enzyme costs have fallen, and Florida citrus farmers have experienced a precipitous drop in the price of citrus waste they sell for cattle feed.

Today, via a partnership with a private sector company, Renewable Spirits LLC, Widmer is setting up a 10,000-gallon waste-to-ethanol plant at the facility of a local juice processor. Converting "absolutely every bit" of the state's citrus waste each year to ethanol would produce between 60 million and 70 million gallons annually, Widmer estimates. "That would be enough to supply fuel additive demands for one section of Florida," he says.

Another potential Florida source of ethanol -- sugar cane -- holds less promise for the moment. Brazil, the world leader in ethanol production, produces about 4 billion gallons of ethanol every year from sugar cane. But Brazil has more land for sugar and has a longer growing season than Florida's. "To be cost-effective, you would have to have a feedstock you would use on a year-round basis," explains Barbara Miedema, vice president of public affairs for the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida.

Meanwhile, state agencies and elected officials continue smoothing the way for ethanol. The Agriculture Department's Division of Standards, which regulates the sale of gasoline, is promulgating new rules to enable greater use of ethanol by amending the definition of petroleum fuels. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson acknowledges that the move toward E10 will take time. "As far as ethanol at the pump, we're looking at more than likely two years before we get enough plants and get some mixture facilities," he estimates.

As for E85, the 85% ethanol blend that would more sharply reduce gasoline consumption, Widmer, for one, isn't holding his breath. "As a replacement for gasoline, that's a very, very long way off."


How Efficient Is Ethanol?

Is ethanol worth the effort? Cornell University professor David Pimentel and University of California Berkeley professor Tad Patzek have argued consistently that the energy outputs from ethanol are less than the fossil energy inputs it takes to make the ethanol -- approximately 1.3 gallons of oil, they argue, go into producing one gallon of ethanol.

Included in their equations are everything from the energy inputs in the labor and machinery used to harvest the corn to the energy expended on removing wastewater from the ethanol during the distillation process. The duo frequently rails against the $3 billion in annual federal and state subsidies steered toward the ethanol industry. Pimentel doesn't buy the argument that ethanol can lead to an independence from foreign oil. "I wish it were so because we need a liquid fuel source, but when you're having to import oil and natural gas to produce this resource, that's not going in the right direction. It's making us more vulnerable and less secure internationally," says Pimentel.

Brad Krohn of U.S. EnviroFuels says the Pimentel/Patzek studies are "myth," not science, and questions Patzek's prior connections to the oil industry. Pimentel's own colleagues dealt his research perhaps the biggest blow when they refuted his ethanol research in the January issue of Science magazine. In that issue, Daniel Kammen, professor in the Energy and Resources Group and director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at UC Berkeley, and other researchers reported that negative net energy studies "incorrectly ignored co-products and used obsolete data." The report concluded that ethanol significantly reduces petroleum use but cuts greenhouse gas emissions "only moderately," by about 13%. "We think it's settled," says Kammen.


Ethanol Q & A

Ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, is a 200-proof grain alcohol. Chemically speaking, it's the same alcohol found in vodka or other distilled spirits. A clear, colorless and flammable liquid, it is produced by the fermentation of sugars.

Q. How is it made?
A. Most ethanol produced in the U.S. comes from corn, but only 70% of the kernel, the starch or sugar portion, is actually converted into ethanol. The fermented starch is then distilled and the excess water is removed to make ethanol. With today's technology, one bushel of corn yields 2.8 gallons of ethanol, although the yield is constantly increasing. Leftover portions of the corn containing fats, oils and proteins become distillers grain, a highly nutritious animal feed.

Q. Will it replace gasoline?
A. No. Ethanol is an additive, not a replacement for gasoline. While virtually all cars today can run on E10, a 10% ethanol/90% gasoline blend, the majority of vehicles aren't set up to burn the higher concentration of ethanol fuel, known as E85. Flexible Fuel Vehicles, which can run on anything from straight gasoline up to 85% ethanol, are usually identified as such in the vehicle's owners manual and inside the gas door.

Q. Will it lower gas prices?
A. It depends. According to the Consumer Federation of America, consumers who purchase E10 could be saving as much as 8 cents per gallon compared to straight gas. But a June 2005 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that using ethanol as an additive to gasoline is associated with higher wholesale gasoline prices. The GAO study found that the average price for conventional gasoline with ethanol was about 4 cents per gallon higher than conventional without ethanol over the time period analyzed. According to the USDA, ethanol tends to track gasoline closely, meaning it doesn't raise or lower the cost of gasoline, but it does extend the overall supply of motor fuel in the country, thereby reducing the need for foreign oil.


Florida Fuel Usage

Floridians consume 8.6 billion gallons of gasoline a year, or nearly 24 million gallons each day, not including aviation fuels. Consumption is growing by about 300 million gallons per year, according to the Florida Department of Revenue. In 10 years, consumption will increase to 32.3 million gallons per day, assuming a 15% population growth.

By 2010, ethanol could potentially replace 490 million gallons of gasoline a year. On the face of it, providing enough of an E10 blend for every driver in the state should save 10% of the gas used by Floridians, or 980 million gallons per year. In reality, octane boosters are typically added to about only half of the fuel used, reducing the impact to 490 million gallons. The real benefit initially would come from ethanol's replacement of water-polluting MTBEs, the most common octane booster in Florida. New mandates contained in the federal energy bill passed last year, however, could boost the amount of ethanol used nationwide, including in Florida. The new Renewable Fuels Standard calls for a steady increase in the amount of ethanol used annually, up from 4 billion gallons in 2006 to 7.5 billion gallons by 2012.